Dream Girl by Laura Lippman

Book Details

Originally published in 2021

The Blurb

Injured in a freak fall, novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his glamorous high-rise apartment, dependent on two women he barely knows: his incurious young assistant, and a dull, slow-witted night nurse.

Then late one night, the phone rings. The caller claims to be the “real” Aubrey, the alluring title character from his most successful novel, Dream Girl. But there is no real Aubrey. She’s a figment born of a writer’s imagination, despite what many believe or claim to know. Could the cryptic caller be one of his three ex-wives playing a vindictive trick after all these years? Or is she Margot, an ex-girlfriend who keeps trying to insinuate her way back into Gerry’s life?

And why does no one believe that the call even happened?

Isolated from the world, drowsy from medication, Gerry slips between reality and a dreamlike state in which he is haunted by his own past: his faithless father, his devoted mother; the women who loved him, the women he loved.

And now here is Aubrey, threatening to visit him, suggesting that she is owed something. Is the threat real or is it a sign of dementia? Which scenario would he prefer? Gerry has never been so alone, so confused – and so terrified.

The Verdict

Dream Girl has a really interesting and quite unsettling premise. What makes it compelling however is the sharp character study and its discussions of the creative process. Recommended.

It’s Aubrey, Gerry. We need to talk. About my story, about what really happened between us, that mess with your wife. I think it’s time the world knows I’m a real person.

My Thoughts

I have been eager to get my hands on a copy of Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl ever since I first read the synopsis so the moment my copy arrived it went straight to the top of my To Read pile. That is partly a reflection of how much I had enjoyed Sunburn, my first experience of Lippman’s writing which I read just about a year ago, but also because the themes it promised to discuss – the creative process, the boundaries between reality and imagination and the publishing world seemed intriguing. I am happy to say that this proved to be a good choice as I found myself devouring the book in just one day.

The novel concerns a novelist, Gerry Andersen who, while not a prolific author, became celebrated and financially successful thanks to his fourth and most celebrated novel, Dream Girl. That book about a man who changes his life when he meets a young woman named Aubrey brought him fame and fortune, leading to literary prizes, college teaching posts and his magnificent, if severe, new apartment in Baltimore.

Not that Gerry particularly wanted to live there again. He moved back to the city to care for his aging mother only for her to die a few days after he closed on the property. Still processing her death, an accident leaves him confined to his bed for several months as he waits for fractures to heal, cut off from the outside world.

Gerry is unsettled when he receives the first in a series of telephone calls from a woman who claims to be Aubrey, the celebrate title character from Dream Girl. Fueled by his isolation and the opioids he is being prescribed, Gerry begins to wonder if the calls are real or just a figment of his imagination. And, if they are real, who might be responsible…

In her notes at the end of the novel Lippman describes this work as her first work of horror fiction and while there are mystery elements here too, I certainly see why she says that. There is something truly hypnotic and deeply unsettling as we recognize, long before Gerry himself, how his world has become increasingly limited and how dependent he now is upon the people tasked with helping him. Lippman creates a palpable sense of dread right from the start of the novel, before the first of those strange phone calls is made, as we read how disoriented he now is by the drugs he is continually fed and it soon becomes clear that something is really going on, even if it takes us a while to learn why that might be the case.

The book continually jumps around in time, moving between the present and the events in Gerry’s past that seem to be linked to them. Some times the links are obvious but often the connections are more subtle, providing details about Gerry’s life and background that help us understand him better as a man. While I cannot say that I particularly liked him as a person, he feels credible and dimensional and his story, along with the issues it raises, are quite compelling.

One of the ideas here that appealed most to me was that readers often want the writer not to have been creative or to have simply invented their characters and plots. They want to believe that they can somehow pluck out or deduce the real life origins of those elements. Having been to a couple of literary festivals in my time, I have heard enough audience questions to know that this is undoubtedly true and I could understand why the question of who inspired the titular Dream Girl might provoke so much interest among his fans and the media.

Lippman’s answer to that question is really interesting, as are many of her reflections on the writing industry in general. I felt that the book was quite a reflective work, drawing on a number of themes and ideas that feel quite prominent in our moment but I think the handling of those ideas will likely be quite timeless.

The decision to tell this story from Gerry’s perspective is an interesting one because while it employs a third person voice, giving some distance, the reader may still feel encouraged to empathize with him as we see how he struggles to understand what is going on. While that choice is not always comfortable, I think it allows Lippman to explore those ideas and themes from a slightly different perspective than is usually used and would note that it does not come at the expense of hearing from those other voices later in the story.

So, what are the mystery elements here? Well, there are two main strands. The first concerns the identity of the person responsible for placing those calls and their motives for doing so. The second is prompted by something that happens at the end of the first part, sending the work in a somewhat different direction. I felt that both questions were interesting and that the answers developed were thoughtful and entertaining.

Though many of the central developments are carefully foreshadowed, that is not to say that the book doesn’t offer some surprises. There is a moment towards the end that I found to be both powerful and quite shocking. Similarly, I found the ending to be quite satisfying, feeling that it provided a strong resolution to the novel’s themes and plot threads.

Overall I felt it was a fine work with interesting characters, particularly Gerry, and a compelling and unsettling plot. It’s a superb piece of suspense writing that I think deserves the hype it has been quite rightly receiving. Recommended.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Book Details

Originally published in 2018

The Blurb

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?

Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

The Verdict

Played in the key of James M. Cain, Sunburn is a powerful and clever work in its own right with striking characterizations and a great premise.

My Thoughts

There is a pivotal sequence quite early in Sunburn in which one of the main characters cooks the perfect grilled cheese sandwich for the other. It is striking because it marks the moment at which the two characters really begin to actively engage with each other and also because it does not involve exotic or expensive ingredients – it is a sandwich that uses familiar ingredients but it is elevated by the choices that chef makes in how each familiar ingredient is incorporated.

Lippman similarly draws on some very familiar ingredients in constructing Sunburn. The couple with secret agendas meeting in a diner after drifting into each others’ paths is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook, something Lippman clearly acknowledges at several points. Lippman’s originality and genius comes in the form of refining each of those familiar elements, respecting Cain’s achievements but then delivering something that feels even richer and deeper, particularly with regards the exploration of the mindset of her female protagonist Polly.

Polly, who also goes by the name Pauline, has arrived in the sleepy town of Belleville, Delaware after leaving her husband and young child during a short break at the beach. This is not an impulsive act but rather a carefully thought-out plan. Upon arriving she talks a local restaurant owner into taking her on as a waitress and she starts to befriend another new arrival in town, Adam.

We soon learn that Adam is not all he seems and that he knows more about Polly than she realizes. The chapters in the first half of the book alternate between these two characters’ perspectives, exploring the events that brought them to Belleville and the connection the pair form. Both have agendas and recognize that they are keeping secrets from each other but there is a powerful attraction between the two that causes each character to give up some of their control and brings them closer and closer to each other.

The brilliance in the situation Lippman creates is that she establishes a relationship between the two built upon a foundation of lies and using one another but the characters are themselves aware of this to at least some extent. This means that both characters will second guess each other, never being entirely sure if they are being played themselves. This generates enormous tension at points, particularly in the later half of the novel in which an apparently accidental death is being investigated. At the same time, the attraction between the pair feels quite evident, making it seem all the more compelling. The only question is to what extent each is being sincere in pursuing that relationship.

As compelling as this situation is however, the novel would not work were it not for the thoughtful and at times ambiguous characterizations of Adam and Polly. Although we are privy to many of their thoughts, we are not told everything about their backgrounds and previous decisions. As such we are only able to perceive events with the lens of what we know in that moment and the reader may well find their attitudes and judgments towards Polly in particular shift throughout the book as we gain more information and build up a broader picture of that character and their life.

Prior to reading this book I had heard about it from some people I know who read it for a book club and several expressed the opinion that Polly is an unlikeable character. While I do not share that experience, I can understand why some will find Polly a difficult character to love or like. For one thing, the choice she makes at the start of the novel to abandon her young daughter seems to go against most people’s understanding of maternal feelings ought to be and so may read as somewhat abhorrent behavior. And yet when you follow her actions it soon becomes clear that she cares deeply about what happens to that child and that the decision is not as simple and selfish as it initially appears. But just when you feel warmer, a new element is introduced that prompts you to doubt your reading of Polly all over again.

Personally I found this characterization to be both thoughtful and realistic, often reflecting the deep and troubling complexities of human behavior, and I was soon rooting for her to fix her life and find some semblance of happiness with Adam (even if, given this is written in a noir style, that seemed impossible).

Adam is also quite a complex character, though in his case the complexities come in the form of some moral compromises and dishonesty in the way he has approached Polly. There are times at which I felt he was exercising careful and thoughtful judgment and yet I could not escape the idea that he may sometimes be seeing what he wanted to see to justify the choices he was making.

Lippman’s depiction of life in a small and quiet town is done well and I think her story acknowledges some of the challenges involved with drifting into the type of place where everyone knows each other and their business. While there is not a huge cast of supporting characters, the ones that are provided seem distinct and dimensional, adding to the sense of place and also time (the book is, after all, a period piece set in the mid-90s). The one exception would be a character who appears in flashback sequences but while that characterization is entirely presented solely from one perspective, I think that was probably necessary to clearly establish their role in the story and to clarify how the reader should feel about them and their actions.

While the first half sets up the circumstances that bring these two characters together and into each other’s arms, the second deals with the fallout from a death. It is this second half, rather than the story trappings themselves, that most remind me of Cain’s work. In particular, I found myself reflecting on an idea he often returns to in his work, that a crime can threaten to undo a relationship by introducing suspicion and mistrust of each other, particularly when they are forced to rely upon one another. That brewing mistrust is one of my favorite parts of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and Lippman proves just as good at credibly creating, sustaining and exploring those tensions. Adam and Polly are easily a match for, say, Frank and Cora.

If there is a disappointment, it comes for me in the final couple of chapters of the book. Now, I think thematically the story is wrapped up pretty perfectly and I liked that there is a moment of tension in that conclusion. Unfortunately I do not love that a key moment is not shown directly to us. While I could understand why the decision was reached to try and build up that sense of tension, it does mean that a key aspect of the story feels somewhat unresolved. Then again, other aspects of that conclusion feel thoughtful and powerful, seeming entirely earned and the final few pages in particular feel pretty gripping.